Sunday, March 18, 2007

Real Change Comes Slowly in the Land of the Mountains

The mission of mentoring change within the Afghan National Army ANA is the primary mission of Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix. The Training Assistance Group or TAG, which I have been assigned to now for seven months, mentors the Kabul Military Training Center or KMTC. We are the school house. If Afghanistan were the United States, we would be Fort Benning: Basic Training, NCO Training and Officer Candidate School all in one.

The mission has expanded tremendously since we arrived here in the Spring of 2006. Then, the KMTC was graduating 650 private Soldiers each month into the ranks of the ANA. We are now graduating 2,000 every month. Despite exponential growth, the prioritization of effort goes to the war fighting units, most typically in the South and the East. While it is not impossible to build an Army while it is fighting a war (we have been helping the Afghans to do so for almost six years now and doing the same on a much larger scale back home simultaneously), it is not the preferred method. Given that the Afghan's culture is one built upon "Pashtunwali" a code of conduct for norms of etiquette as well as vengeance, it is not in their cultural norms to say "No" in any way shape or form to a superior. While we in the West are often hailed for the directness of our culture and our ability to respectfully disagree, the Afghans will typically take the path of least resistance if it means eithr losing face or causing a superior to lose face. Thus, when a General comes to visit the training center, it is seen as impolite to explain problems with resources and instead to allow him to focus on the shrubbery surrounding the Mosque.

Why does this have any bearing on the mission here? We have been doing hero's work here in training Soldiers, Noncommissioned Officers and Officers to a high standard, but we have been doing so with resources that are constantly in competition with our war fighting peers.

A Note: I write "We" because I consider "them" to be "us." I refer to my Afghan Colonel colleagues as my Uncle, Hashim and my Big Brother, Aziz. Their fight is my fight and they are my family. We have become that close.

In the past several weeks several of us have been trying to get our arms around this predicament: how to continue to grow the army while maintaining the high level of excellence from the institution without degrading the effort to supply trained officers and NCOs to the war fighting units in the field. As Coalition members, we have done our best to fight for the resources, both human, logistical and capitol, that will make our institution of greater value to the people of Afghanistan. Sometimes in not so polite terms, but usually with enough emphasis to make the point. Simultaneously, the Afghans have realized that now is the hour and have given in to the need to raise such issues to the senior leadership of the Army.

Well in the past two days, this place has been a General Officer Circus. There has been more Afghan Brass than I have ever seen outside of the Ministry of Defense. Enough voices have raised this concern that the leadership is finally making the changes that we have all anticipated for so long.

We expect to gain a considerable amount of human resources in a very short time, to better be able to train the Soldiers to a high standard before moving them into the fight. We have learned that many of the logistical resources (billetting, training areas, mess facilities and others) will be fast-tracked. It is as if the Lunar Eclipse has brought with it an emergent knowledge that not all worthwhile training can come from an "OJT" style of orientation once Soldiers hit the front. Almost as if the austerity we have faced in the past several months has been a necessary Evil, drawing attention to the plight of the Soldiers of KMTC, while the commanders and their garrisons waited patiently until the senior National level leadership was able to draw its own stark conclusions.

Whatever the cause of this turn of events, we here at KMTC, whether Afghan, American, British, French, Canadian, Ghurka, New Zealander, or Polish, are delighted to hear. Perhaps there is more to the Pashtunwali than we can ever understand.

Before arriving here in the land of the Hindu Kush, I learned an old Pashtun Proverb. It roughly translates: "For a hundred years, I waited to extract my vengeance. When I acted, my fathers' cursed my impatience."

For some things, we must wait a long time. Independence is something that will not happen on our timeline. But it is something the Afghans pray for. That and that we will be patient with them.

-From Kabul


Blogger Matt Weems said...

My reading was that past problems with the Afghan military included trouble getting decent pay to the soldiers and soldiers disappointed in the pay then left for their home militias.

Are the 2000 a month you are training getting their pay? Is it possible some of them will take their training to groups either neutral in the Taliban / coalition fight, or possibly Taliban leaning? Has the graft issue been subdued well enough that the pay doesn't get siphoned off in part before it reaches the ranks?

And I thought the army was supposed to be ethnically balanced. Only 40% should therefore be Pashtun. I'm getting the impression the men you are training are Pashtun. Why is that?


5:54 PM  
Blogger Major Strong said...


Thanks for your insightful queries. All of your points are spot on. There are three primary legs that this stool of a Nation stands upon: Security (us and the ANA); Development (whether USAID, UN or Investment); and Government Reform (Specifically, the issue of graft and corruption). Without all three of these legs, it will not stand on its own feet.

Just today we finished an Outbrief with the staff of the MOD. The senior leadership of the ANA is very focused on resolving the issue of graft. We have found some very minor examples of it, but fortunately, the challenge is not that deep here in the school house. We also have a very thorough vetting process to identify and track the ANA Soldiers while they are here and once they deploy. The reality is that what you and I often call corruption, the people of one of the poorest nations on the planet (and without the Poppy culture, THE poorest) call survival.

Your point about the ethnic balancing is very astute. It is one of the elements that makes this Nation as well as this Army the success that it is rapidly becoming. Our efforts and those of the Afghans are to train and graduate just that an "Afghan" national army. And that is what, increasingly, they call themselves. Private Soldiers from the moment of inception are placed into mixed race ranks at the squad level, so that Pashtuns will need to rely on Tajiks and Uzbeks will have to rely on Hazaras. It is a good method that is taking root in the communities that all of these Soldiers deploy to. My reference to "Pashtunwali" is more a code of conduct that is widely accepted across Afghanistan.

Thanks so much for your smart commentary.

From Kabul,


8:44 AM  
Blogger Matt Weems said...

Thanks for the reply.

It's nice to see that the effort has a clear plan of action (the three legged stool) and the legs sound like the right choices from here.

The corruption issue is interesting. An Afghan who has money flowing through his hands (say soldier salaries), and doesn't siphon some off to extended family and clan, is immoral. So he's stuck between the rules the army tells him, and the morality he was raised on. It's no contest.

I don't really have an answer to that. Maybe an accounting system that makes it impossible to siphon off money or hire on relations? If there is no opportunity there is no conflict.


9:25 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Hi, I found your blog while trying to learn a little bit more about life at Camp Alamo. I wanted to thank you for sharing your experiences so that we can better understand how greatful we can be for all the fine people like yourself who do such amazing and important work.

9:17 PM  
Blogger randerson said...

I had seen your blog on the nytimes blog, and am glad to see you up again. This reading was like a bright stream of light from the clouds. Seems all we hear is success Not fast enough Not good enough Let's get out. I'm not doing a very good job of using words. Just thank you, and I pray with the Afghans for democracy for them, and that we will be patient with them. Thank you and all those who have gone where you are.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Major Strong said...

"Randerson" and Sara, Thanks for your comments. I will make a better effort to keep up with the blog. Hearing from readers makes it worthwhile. Today was a beautiful day in Kabul, yesterday's rains having cleared the skies and the view of the snow capped peaks was stunning.

Na' Ruz, the Muslim New Year is onight...happy new year

10:10 AM  
Blogger wghdawg said...

Arnold -

Nice to see you are doing well. I also enjoy your blog and read it to keep up to date on what you guys are up to. Tell everyone "hi" from me. See you soon, my friend.

B. Hagedorn

7:06 AM  

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